MONTREAL, QC — “I remember one thing my father always said, how he didn’t care how we played, just, you know, he was taking time here, taking time out of their schedule to get us to the rink so the least we could do was work hard while we’re there.” Those words of sage advice came at an early age for defenceman Morgan Ellis, but it’s a lesson he’s carried with him throughout his hockey career. “It’s a lot of hard work, but at the same time I don’t see it as a job. A job is, you know, you’re getting up in the morning, you’re going nine to five. For us it’s a privilege and I hope to play as long as I can because I enjoy it.”
Coming off of a standout year with the St. John’s IceCaps, Ellis can take pride that all that hard work is paying off. He played 73 games with the IceCaps in the 2015-16 season, posting 16 goals and 26 assists. He also made an appearance at the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic with teammate Mike McCarron, where he recorded one of the hardest shots in the skills competition. Ellis added that the St. John’s team consists of a great group of guys and despite losing a lot of “key contributors” to Montreal due to injury call-ups, he was put in a good position to succeed by having plenty of power play and penalty killing minutes in addition to his five-on-five play. “If I could shoot the puck this year, I was shooting the puck and I was just trying to make the plays,” he said in a recent phone interview with AHL Report. “I was fortunate enough I was able to play a lot. I mean, if you’re playing a lot you’ve gotta be a factor on the ice and that’s what I was trying to do.”
Admittedly, Morgan says it’s not as common for hockey players to make it into the pro leagues from the small town in eastern Canada he hails from. The 24-year-old PEI native has fond memories of skating after church on Sundays with his siblings. He credits his older brother as an early mentor in sports. “He was the oldest one, so he was always into the stuff first. He got the weight set early, so it was an excuse to hang out with him, I guess you could say. I was pretending I was down there working out, but it was just to hang out with him and see what he was doing.”
Ellis says he didn’t know much about pro hockey beyond the NHL until he learned about the QMJHL while playing Bantam and Midget hockey. “When I was younger I just enjoyed watching hockey. I liked Matt Sundin and guys like that. And Jerome Iginla.” When asked if he always wanted to play defence, Morgan recounted how, when playing at the novice level, there was one boy who was a few years older than the rest who was permitted to play on his team. “And I was always paired up with him, so I think that’s kind of when the defence started,” Ellis chuckled.
Anyone who watches him play hockey today can tell you that Ellis is a strong two-way defenceman – another trait he’s had since early on. “I was always trying to skate the puck up the ice and I probably wasn’t passing as much as I should have.” In 2008, he landed in the QMJHL with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles where he would play for three and a half years. “I really enjoyed Cape Breton, especially being from the Maritimes. They’re the same people as PEI: they’re friendly, they’re gonna help you, and anything you need they’re there for you.”
While playing for Cape Breton, Morgan had one of his dreams come to fruition when he was drafted into the NHL in 2010. “I probably didn’t say many words, I think I was pretty nervous. I was just sitting there, just praying that I get picked. And sure enough, Montreal’s pick came and they selected me in the fourth round.” He said it was a proud moment for his parents and loved ones, as well as for his friends and supporters back home. “Especially where I’m from, if you get drafted to the NHL it’s a big deal – and it should be!” he quipped.
2012 brought his first trade when he was sent to Shawinigan to play with the Cataractes. It ended up being a very special season with Ellis nabbing four goals and seven assists during the team’s QMJHL playoff run. “We had a great group of guys. We had a great team, we got upset in the second round, just everything we went through made winning a lot sweeter,” he said. Sweeter, as in a Memorial Cup win. Ellis would also be awarded the Kevin Lowe Trophy for the QMJHL’s Best Defensive Defenceman and be named to the league’s Second All-Star Team to round out his junior career.
Then it was time to begin his pro career in the AHL by starting the 2012-13 season with Montreal’s then-farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. Ellis admits he struggled with the transition to the pro league for a bit at first, saying, “Obviously in junior you have more time with the puck, and you’re able to think a little more rather than in pro you’re playing against men, and less time with the puck.” He added, “But the big thing with me was just confidence. I was just inconsistent.” In contrast, when our Editor-in-Chief Rick Stephens first saw Ellis play at development camp, he was “struck by Morgan’s poise on the ice”.
After spending some time in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers, Ellis said he was able to regain his confidence and feels that not only has his game developed, but also his outlook as well. “The mistakes are going to happen, it’s just you gotta limit the amount that you do. And, y’know, you’re playing pro hockey so you ARE a good hockey player, so you just gotta try to make more better plays than bad plays.” That renewed confidence led him to a career-best season in goals and points this year, with his second-highest number of assists. A solid performance like that, coupled with special teams experience and leadership off the ice led to another dream becoming reality: an NHL call-up for five games, of which he played in three. “It never happens the way you think it’s going to happen and for me I wouldn’t change anything the way it happened. It made it that much more sweeter…not only for me, but for everyone back home.”
If you’re sensing a pattern here, it’s true that Ellis is ever humble and modest in interviews. A dedicated team player, he tends to deflect attention away from his personal play or accomplishments and instead focuses on team successes and what his career means to his family and community. His strong sense of leadership and character are present on and off the ice, which our team witnessed on more than one occasion while covering the IceCaps this past season.
In one instance, while warming up in Syracuse, Ellis skated over to a young disabled man sitting near the bench and handed his stick over the glass to him. When asked about it, he remembered the moment instantly, saying, “He was sitting there, seemed like he was enjoying himself, and the trainers were good to me – if I saw a fan and I wanted to give anything away they didn’t even question it.” He continued, “The fans are how we get paid, so you can’t take them for granted.”
The future seems bright for Morgan Ellis, and he now finds himself in the midst of another off-season full of training. “You work on the things that you need to, and obviously the things that need to get better and get you to the next step, and for me it’s just shooting a lot of pucks and working out a lot in the gym and getting on the ice as much as possible,” he stated. “The big thing I enjoy since I started playing hockey is the guys, I mean that’s what makes it. You know, you’re with them every day and just being around the dressing room and morning skates and practices. You’re all going through the same things and your dream is all the same – you all want to be in the NHL. You’re all battling for the same job but at the same time you’re all buddies.”
At time of writing, the Canadiens had not given Ellis a qualifying offer for next season – he will be RFA on July 1 if a contract isn’t negotiated. However, one thing is for certain: he doesn’t plan on giving up on his dreams anytime soon. “Not a lot of hockey players come from where I grew up and just try to make it as far as I can and give them something to cheer for,” said Morgan. “You just gotta enjoy it as much as you can because you know at the end of the day you can’t play hockey your whole life, so you gotta enjoy it while you can and make the most of it.”
Listen to the full audio from my interview with Morgan Ellis below: